SCRIPTURE: Ps 119:71
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: September 13th, 2014
“It is good for me to be afflicted so that I may learn your decrees.” (Ps 119:71)Adam is worried sick about his exams. His mother enters the room and quotes Proverbs 3:5-6 to him to trust God for all things. Adam takes his mother’s advice and stops studying. He goes straight to bed without further worrying. He says: “God will make my paths straight right?” He fails his exams leaving him with a negative aftertaste that the Bible does not really work for him.
Teddy knows his Bible well. Since young, he has aced Bible quizzes and has won many Scripture memory competitions. He is literally a walking Bible. He has a quote for all occasions and people often look up to him for his level of Bible literacy. He participates actively in Bible discussions with his own ready answers. Sometimes, he can become quite disruptive during Bible discussions as he brings in verses from all over the Bible that distracts participants from properly understanding the verses in context. People are increasingly afraid of sharing deeper secrets with Teddy because every time they share something, Teddy would be so quick to quote a Bible verse that he would not listen to anything else at all. After all, how can anyone argue against the Word of God thrown at them? People call Teddy a Bible-rifle who uses Bible verses as bullets for everything in life. People avoid Teddy often by saying: “Thanks but no thanks. What’s right for you may not be right for me.”
Monique loves Bible studies. She approaches every study enthusiastically mining the Bible for all kinds of information. She plows through many commentaries and dictionaries, marking every word, every phrase, and every passage, even punctuation marks! Like a gold digger, she digs away diligently looking for Bible gems as if she is the one in control. She is more interested in Bible information than spiritual formation.
Adam, Teddy, and Monique present three different types of Christians. Adam lets his faith be dependent on what people say. Teddy tells people without listening to what people are saying. Monique digs the Bible as if she is telling the Bible what she wants rather than to let the Bible teach her what she needs.
This week, I want to discuss the difference between Bible information and spiritual formation. For the former, one mines the Bible for facts and knowledge. One is in control of the learning. One is in charge of what to learn. For the latter, one lets the Bible be the teacher, the guide, and the cultivator of faith. The chief question this week is this: Are we mining for facts or are we aligning for faith?
A) Mining for Facts
I call this mining for facts. Such a tactic simply searches the Bible for information like a brochure. In our Internet age, we can maintain such a Wiki-like mentality that we type in Bible verses like typing in website locations. We search for words according to what we want like using Google to search for data we seek. We submit website queries according to what we are looking for. Like users of the Internet, it is easy to search for things we want. It is also easy to ignore things that we do not want. Just don’t search for it. In fact, my main critique for people doing research on the Internet is the tendency to search for information to support our opinions. It is very easy to find such support. Whatever the issue, whatever the concern, we can begin a search with our own assumptions in mind. This is the cultural phenomenon that has shaped Christians in the study of the Bible. They study the Bible not for what the Bible says. They search the Bible text for what they want. Like Adam’s mum who quotes Proverbs 3:5-6 freely without truly understanding what Adam is going through. Adam too fails to appropriate what the verse means for him personally. For Bible verses are not magical incantations to save our exams supernaturally. It is an encouragement for us to seek God’s wisdom in everything we do. If we mine the Bible merely for facts, we can find a Bible verse for every single situation. In knowing the texts without understanding the contexts, we risk misrepresenting the Bible for what it says and misappropriating the Bible for whom it may concern. When we read for stuff according to what we want, we risk missing out what God wants.
B) Aligning for Faith
There is a better way. This is to learn to read the Bible with the eyes of faith. Ask not what the Bible can do for us, but ask what the Bible is teaching us. Read not merely for information but read with a willingness to be formed by the Word. Read the Bible as a student of the faith. Read the Bible to align our wants and wishes with the instructions and wisdom for faith. What’s the difference you may say? The difference is simply this: Who is Lord?
Are we lording over the Bible or are we letting the Bible lord over us? In lording over the Bible, we can easily take charge and take control over what we are learning. We pick the verses we want and ignore that ones we do not like. Like the study of the book of Romans. Many people quote choice verses like Romans 8:28 and Romans 12:1-2. How many of us study the contexts of these verses? How many of us have understood the first eleven chapters of Romans where Paul builds his case prior to Romans 12:1? In my experience, not many people will do that. Our generation is trained to make things short and sweet, get to the point, and give the bare essentials. The Word of God is all Genesis through Revelation, not choices verses according to our needs. It is a grand narrative of God’s working and revealing through the centuries. That is why every Christian needs to read through the Bible as much as possible.
Aligning for Faith basically means that the Bible is in charge, not us. It means we do not come with preconceived ideas of what we want, but to come with a willingness to obey what God wants. The sad thing about modern study is that we often come with an already set way of reading. Robert Mulholland observes:
“We have a deeply ingrained way of reading in which we are masters of the material we read. We come to a text with our own agenda firmly in place, perhaps not always consciously but usually subconsciously. If what we start to read does not fairly quickly begin to adapt itself to our agenda, we usually lay it aside and look for something that does.” (M. Robert Mulholland Jr, Shaped By the Word, Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 2000, p19)If we hold on to such a mindset, we will fail to align ourselves to what the Word is saying. Instead, we will try to push, to bend, to malign, to manipulate the Bible according to our desires. Worse, we make the Bible say things according to our whims and fancies. Aligning ourselves for faith means we begin with openness to God and a willingness to obey God without our preconceived ideas.
C) Bible Information versus Spiritual Formation
|The Four-Fold Lectio Divina|
One of the first readings I was assigned prior to entering Regent College was to read Luther’s three tips on studying theology: Prayer (oratio) – Meditation (meditatio) – Testing (tentatio). In prayer, we learn to approach the Scriptures with reverence, praying for divine guidance and help. How much do we read? How fast do we go? We ask God to teach us. In meditation, we learn to pause when there is a need to pause, speed up or slow down, and more importantly, seeking the Spirit for illumination at all times. Frequently, we may simply pause at some verses and meditate on it. In meditation, we no longer search or scan for information. We let the Word sink in to instruct us in our hearts, our minds, and our souls. In testing, we let the Bible test us, search us, deal with our inner conditions.
"Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts." (Ps 139:23)
Whether it is the traditional lectio divina or Luther’s three aspects of study, the key thing is that sacred reading means letting the Word be over us, and not us over the Word. One of the most important things in any group study is liturgical reading by a community. A slow meditative reading is a sign of reverence and wonder. According to the monks of New Skete, when reading the Psalms, a community supports one another with a slow interplay of reading and listening.
“Whoever is assigned to read recites each verse aloud so that everyone can hear and savor it. It’s not a question of being theatrical or artificial about this. The slow, thoughtful pace allows the words to enter our psyche and work on the hidden depths of our person.” (The Monks of New Skete, In the Spirit of Happiness, NY: Little Brown and Company, 1999, p137)D) Soaked in the Word
|To Scrub or to Soak?|
Of course, those of us more experienced will simply leave the pot to soak in water overnight. By the next day, most of the hardened grime inside the pot would have softened. All it needs then is a gentle scrub with minimal detergent and the pot would be sparkling clean!
This is what spiritual formation is about. When we rush to study the Bible, we would be using human brute force to study, to analyze, and to consume spiritual information without waiting for God to speak to us. It is our own time and our own agenda. Unwittingly, we would be leaving behind hidden sins (like small remaining grime) inside us. However, when we soak ourselves in the Word for a period of time, like water over time, our hearts will be softened and be more open to God changing us. We need to learn to soak in the Word, not scrub and scratch the Word to pick and choose what we want to believe or not to believe.
My friends. There is a profitable and non-profitable way to read or study the Bible. The way of mining is the way of spiritual information. The way of aligning is the way of spiritual formation. For the former, we can easily pile on ourselves with man-made materials to study, to analyze, and to investigate. For the latter, we let the Holy spirit do the studying of us, the analyzing of our hearts, and the investigation of our purposes and intent. That is what spiritual formation is about. Letting God form us with His Word. Whether it is lectio divina, Luther’s oratio-meditatio-tentatio methodology, or simply soaking ourselves in the Word, we need to adopt patience and an openness to change. If we can do that, we will move away from “mining for facts” toward an “aligning for faith” disposition. That would be most profitable for spiritual formation.
THOUGHT:"Serious and earnest prayer should be constantly used before we consult the oracles of God; seeing 'Scripture can only be understood through the same Spirit whereby it was given.' Our reading should likewise be closed with prayer, that what we read may be written on our hearts." (John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, 3rd ed. Kansas City, KS: Beacon Hill Press, 1979, XIV, p252)
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